They Say Frat House Like It’s a Bad Place to Live

It was 2011 when Dartmouth College professor, Charles Wheelan, was asked to speak at the college’s annual Class Day. His speech “10-1/2  Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said” was later turned into a book, because of all of its wit and wisdom. The number one thing that Wheelan insists no commencement speaker ever said is “Your time in fraternity basements was well spent”.

Delta SigsThis past weekend I had a really great weekend. I took a trip back to my college, Wittenberg University, to spend a few days with my brothers from the Delta Sigma Phi Fraternity. 36 brothers that I went to school with attended, and then other brothers from various years stopped by, as well. Also fun, was that many of the current active brothers attended, and were very interested in our traditions and the memories of our times spent in the Delta Sig House.

Right before I left for Wittenberg, I had been contacted by a professional group for college admissions counselors about speaking at a professional development event they are having. I had no idea what I would speak to them about. As I made the 6 hour ride home, however, with a smile on my face the whole way, I realized that I had a great speech for that group, because I learned some of my most important life lessons by being a member of a fraternity.

I went to college in the early to mid 1980’s. It may have been a hey day for fraternity life, with the movie “Animal House” enjoying a pretty solid cult following. And while we may have participated in one or two of the activities from the movie, there was a lot more to fraternity life than Toga parties and drinking games, well, at least in retrospect.

Front porch Sig HouseBack in those golden days of Greek life on American college campuses, fraternity houses were designed to hold a lot of guys. If memory serves me, the Delta Sig House was set up for about 25 guys to live in. That’s a lot of testosterone in one dwelling. I didn’t always like every single guy who wore a Sig shirt, and I am sure not every one of them liked me, but we did co-exist, and we did share a bond, and in the end, that meant something, even between the guys who may not call each other best friends. Every day was an experience and my time spent there was full of life lessons.

Here’s a short list of the most important things I learned living in a fraternity house.

1. If you want to eat, be on time and eat fast – In retrospect, one of the best things about the fraternity house experience was that we ate together every day. We had a cook, Jack Lattimore. A Vietnam vet who loved us all like we were his own kids. We had a dining room with 6 or 8 tables and even brothers who didn’t live in the house could participate in the meal program. So, dinner was served at a certain time every day, and we all sat down together and ate. You often hear in parenting circles how important meal time is. The Delta Sig house was no exception. We talked about stuff that was going on, shared our successes, asked for assistance, planned the next party, and razzed each other. There was generally 36 guys and 39 chicken patties, so if you wanted to eat, you arrived on time and you ate fast, but like a family meal, dinner time was essential to building the bond of brother hood.

2. In order to be a leader, you only have to step up – there were so many opportunities for leadership, you couldn’t walk by without tripping over one. There was, of course, the executive board of the house – President, Vice President, Treasurer, Recruitment, House Manager etc. But there were a lot of informal roles too. We were constantly involved in things. Intramural sports, Homecoming float building, Greek Week activities, etc. The house needed to be maintained, parties needed to be planned and marketed, pledges needed to be recruited. So many possibilities, and they addressed so many of our interests and talents. I was trying to figure out my life back then, and I wrote the “Pyramid” for a time, which was the fraternity’s newsletter. One of the early times I discovered my love of writing. That has paid off well for me over the years.

3. A little ingenuity and self-reliance can carry you a long way – We lived in an old house. We didn’t have a ton of money. None of our fathers lived there with us. I learned some of my best MacGyver lessons trying to keep things going with limited resources while living in a fraternity house. If it broke, we fixed it, with whatever happened to be around. I’m sure not every solution would pass a fire/building code review, but hey, we all lived to tell about it, right? No harm, no foul.

Pledge Class4. Who you surround yourself with matters – Look at good, successful people. Now look at the people they surround themselves with. Good people travel in packs. When I get together at these reunions, I am so happy to see my brothers. They are all wildly successful. I lived with guys in that house who now own their own businesses, who are lawyers, doctors, CEOs, PhDs, and more. We were successful in college, being at the top of the GPA scale every term, winning interfraternity sports leagues and the annual Greek Games. Good people push those around them to higher levels. We were a prime example of that back then, and it has paid great dividends now. If you aren’t as successful as you’d like to be, look at who you are surrounded by. Are they challenging you, and are you returning the favor?

Fraternities aren’t what they used to be, for a lot of reasons. Alcohol and hazing, being near the top of the list of things that colleges target. With the popularity of video games, and the internet culture, college men, for no reason I can fathom, would rather sit in their dorm rooms and game than getting out and getting involved. (My sadness regarding this trend could fill a post all by itself) Lets just say that if you are in a position to influence young men and women. Push them towards engaging in groups in high school and college. This is the beginnings of their life long network. In that same first chapter of his book, Wheelan discusses a study which found that “joining a group that meets just once a month has the same effect on your sense of well-being as doubling your income“.

Depending on who you are, either high school or college have a strong chance of being among the best four years of your life. Because of the guys and girls I hung out with at the Delta Sig house, and the lessons I learned, college was mine.

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Success Summer Style – 5 Beneficial Activities for Your Time Off

If you are a person who gets time off during the summer, you can choose to be summer lazy, or you can choose to utilize a small portion of your time off to increase your chances of being successful in your endeavors. Here’s five things that you can do during the summer to recharge your batteries and build your chances of making it to the top in whatever you do.

1. Work on creating good habits

Habits are the building blocks of success. One of the greatest leadership books of all times is “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey. Do good things over and over until they start to happen without you even thinking about them. There are so many good habits you can build for yourself. Reading is essential to growth. Whether it is the sports page or books on philosophy, reading daily will keep your brain working and grow your vocabulary and writing skills, no matter your age. Exercising is another great habit that you can build over the summer. Even something as simple as a 30 minute walk regularly has great health benefits. How about journaling regularly? It helps you organize your thoughts, and it is a great way to record for you or your family the great things that happen. It is a proven fact that journaling helps your brain relive good events that happened to you and that has outstanding affects on your mood. My journal is actually a book of letters to my son. Hopefully, in years to come he will enjoy all of the great events in his life that I have chronicled for him. Maybe there will be smiles AND lessons in there for him. Spend your time off creating habits that will keep benefiting you for years to come.

2. Family time

As my son gets closer and closer to finishing up college, I am more and more aware that he is going to be heading out to start his own life soon enough and that means less time with me. Whether you are the child or the parent, you can drive more family time. A strong family is definitely one of the keys to success. Make sure you allot some time weekly to spend with the people you love the most. Share goals, successes and compliments. Every one will benefit from time spent together.

3. Learn a new skill

Isn’t there something out there that you have wanted to master. Get out there and do it. Learn to juggle, or play the guitar, or design websites, or learn to cook, or take up photography. There are countless “how-to” videos on the internet. Don’t know what it is that you want to do? Spend some time watching TED Talks, you are sure to find some inspiration there in the hundreds of talks they have online. There are sections and sections of books on every imaginable topic at your local bookstore. If you add one new skill each year, imagine the things you will be able to do in your life. My friend, Ed Kilgore, a former sports director in town climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro AND wrote a book, all after his 63rd birthday. Doesn’t matter how old you are, you can learn new skills.

4. Explore

Curiosity is one of the keys to great success. Take things apart and see how they work and then put them back together again. Go hiking or fossil hunting. Park your car and walk around new areas of your city or town. Visit museums and see things that are new to you. Eat ethnic foods that you have never eaten before. Drop your canoe or kayak in a place you’ve never paddled before. Exploration is a path to thinking and thinking is an ingredient to innovation and success. You don’t have to spend a lot money. There are also sorts of places to explore for free or cheap. Almost every town or city has nature trails or parks to explore for free. Get out there and see new things. You never know what you may find.

5. Volunteer

There are few more thought provoking or rewarding activities than giving back to your community. Even better if you can find an activity near and dear to your heart. There are not-for-profit organizations and church groups. You can participate in neighborhood clean ups, read books to young kids, or raise money for the local children’s hospital. Volunteering is also a great way to impress people and grow your network. This is also a great opportunity for family time. Working together, with the people you love, for a common good, is one of the most rewarding activities ever.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure that it grows your mind, body, or network of people you know. The one thing you don’t want to do with your time off is to waste it. No one ever gets better by  watching hours of television on beautiful days.



Merry Christmas

Over the past week and a half we have had some stark reminders of how precious the gift of life is. It’s never easy to lose loved ones, but for the families of the people who lost their lives in Newtown, CT on December 14, the holidays will forever be marked with tragedy.

Yesterday, another mad man, in Webster, NY (a little more than an hour away from me) set fire to a home to lure first responders into a trap, where he shot and killed two firefighters and gravely wounded two more. More families who will never again look at the Christmas season the same way.

I was slightly somber as we started our Christmas Eve celebration last night. Sad for all of the people who wouldn’t be able to enjoy the magic of Christmas that I was going to experience over the next few days. I know the ache that would envelope them all. But slowly, as more people started to arrive, the sad thoughts were nudged aside by the Christmas energy that they brought.

Before long, there were 40 people in a house that should have held 20 and there was laughter. As we stood in the basement, my son and I got to laugh at all of the fathers of babies who would settle in for a minute before they got summoned to “get the camera” or “find the diaper bag” or “look for the bink”. As I chuckled with my 19 year old baby, I remembered those days…..fondly, but not longingly.

Next, we gathered together and shared some prayer, and a Polish tradition called “Oplatek”. Each person gets a thin wafer and you go from person to person where you break off a small piece of theirs and they yours and you eat it and share Christmas wishes. This year, I hugged everyone. Maybe even a little tighter than in the past years. This year, I was reminded how precious that gift of life is.

Our Christmas Eve dinner is one of my favorite meals of the year. The foods are steeped in tradition and prepared with love. Breaded pork chops, Chicken, mashed potatoes and corn, and my favorite Polish delights, sweet and sour cabbage and pierogis. The only thing better than the food is the company with which we share it.

After dinner is eaten, and all the extra tables and chairs are broken down, Santa pays a visit to give out a few presents. Then we exchange our own gifts. One of the things that I love about our family is that many of us make gifts for each other instead of buying them. While I appreciate anything that anyone takes the time to give me, my most treasured gifts ever are the things that people have taken time to create especially for me, and that I know there is only one of them in the whole world. That’s special.

And after the gifts comes the delightful chaos of playing with all of the new toys and games that the kids got. It’s so fun to watch the generation of new parents, who were just kids themselves when I started dating my wife, playing with their excited babies.

Don’t get me wrong, I really, really, really enjoyed growing up with my kids, but I am also happy that instead of spending the night on the floor playing with new toys (or in some cases just the box that the toy came in), or having to leave early to get him to bed, we were able to sit down together as a team at the Euchre table and walk away with the bragging rights for Christmas 2012.

When we g0t home last night, Adam and I wrapped a few last presents over a few laughs, and then he came downstairs and negotiated a 10:00 AM wake-up call. So, I’m smiling as I think of (and read Facebook statuses for) all of my friends and family who were up at the crack of dawn. I was too. My fat little puggle named Moxy is the excited baby in our house at Christmas. I’m smiling as I get text messages from friends and even former students who I haven’t seen in months or years, but always take a minute to send me Christmas wishes.

So, as I sip coffee from my Webster, NY coffee mug and think about those families who were recently touched by horror, and who will find no joy today, I am surrounded by the warmth that is my family and friends and I am reminded that the gift of life is precious and it is truly the greatest gift of the holiday season. It took me years to figure it out, but it is our relationships that make us strong, and happy, not the stuff we accumulate along the way. Enjoy the gift of life and the relationships you have made as you celebrate over these days. Thank you for being a part of my life, whether it is through an online community or real life interaction, you are important to me and appreciated. Merry Christmas to all.